This article about the way some Indian women are banished to a small hut on the outskirts of their villages for being ‘unclean’ while menstruating, got me thinking about what it means to be ‘clean.’
The practice is irrelevant and outdated to most of us. It’s also a violation of the human rights these women are entitled to. But without delving too far into that, I’m interested in looking at what human beings consider clean and unclean.
There is often a cultural story behind why certain things or foods are considered to be unclean. But when one human can look at another human and think, “You are unclean,” that’s heavy. And I think it’s related to the ideals and ideas of perfection people hold on to.
I think we all do it in subtle ways. Yes, you and I. Sure, I’m never going to endorse excommunicating someone for having their period. The thought makes my heart hurt for these women who are treated in this way, just for being women. But it all starts somewhere.
What about when I look at someone and secretly think, “Ugh, I would never treat my child that way. How barbaric.” Or, “I can’t believe how ignorant that person is when they make flippant comments about x, y, z." Or worse, judging someone for being judgmental. All the while, I’m making subconscious decisions about distancing myself from the person.
At the heart of it, I’m looking at that person as unclean, not wanting them to contaminate my way of life. Shameful as it is to say out loud, I obviously feel that my ways are superior to theirs. And I put myself on a pedestal. I think most of us do it, without realising.
You don’t have to be friends with everyone. You shouldn’t be friends with everyone. Nor should you continually put yourself in the company of people who are genuinely a negative influence. But you should take a good, hard look at how you secretly categorise people.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have opinions of other people’s actions. And to assess for ourselves whether or not those actions would be right or wrong for ourselves. That’s healthy. But there’s a difference in doing that and taking it a step further into judging that person.
I’m sure that the men in the Indigenous Indian communities that cast ‘unclean’ women out of the villages view themselves as clean and superior. You might think that’s far-fetched from your reality, archaic and ill-informed.
But it’s not that far removed when you realise that it all stems from the same roots of perfectionism, self-righteousness and maybe superstition, watered frequently with judgement. Yeah, there are some pretty ugly plants growing in our hearts.
Some of you have considered the plight of the women we speak of and immediately started thinking about how they can be helped and what sorts of resources are required for culturally-sensitive and sustainable change to come about so that their dignity would be recognised and upheld.
And some of you have automatically started to judge the community leaders and the men who allow it without taking to the time to research or understand why things are the way they are in these communities.
Regardless of your beliefs, I think it’s hard not to admire the actions of Jesus when he stood up for a woman considered to be unclean in her day. A group of religious leaders were about to stone her for having ‘committed adultery.’ Jesus is recorded to have basically said, “Whichever one of you has never done anything wrong or thought anything wrong, can throw the first stone.” The religious folks all had no choice but to walk away.
We throw stones all day long at people we consider to be unclean. In our minds, we reckon they’d be better off in a metaphorical hut outside our community. We just use more contemporary words to describe those thoughts to ourselves. Just because we would never call them’unclean’ out loud or actually pick up a stone and throw it at them, doesn’t mean we aren’t doing it internally.
Who in your life have you written off as unclean? More importantly, have you put yourself on a pedestal and is it time to come down? That last bit was rhetorical by the way.
P.S. More more information on efforts towards destigmatising menstruation and on organisations assisting the women mentioned in the article, you can look at the following websites: